Friday, March 2, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Chardon school tragedy focuses attention on student safety

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 2, 2011

A gunman opened fire in the cafeteria of Chardon High School near Cleveland on Monday morning. The gunman killed three students and wounded two others. The alleged assailant has been identified by authorities as 17-year-old T.J. Lane.

At a news conference shortly after Lane's initial hearing, Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce said the defendant is "someone who's not well." Joyce continued, “[He said he] did not know the students but chose them randomly."

The attack conjures up memories of abhorrent acts of violence perpetrated upon innocent students and school staff at places like Columbine and Virginia Tech. The most recent mass murder at an American school occurred in 2005. On March 21, a 16-year-old Minnesota boy killed his grandfather and a friend. He then went to Red Lake High School, where he shot and killed five students, a teacher, an unarmed security guard, and wounded five others.

In the last five years there have been few mass school killings. On January 5, 2011, a Nebraska student suspended from school shot and killed a principal and wounded three others before taking his own life.

In December of 2010, a Wisconsin student took 23 students and one teacher hostage for over 5 hours at a high school. The suspect, a high school sophomore, took his own life as police closed in.

On Halloween morning in 2008, a 55-year-old gunman held 11 fifth graders hostage at a school in Maine. He was subdued outside the classroom without harm to the children.

In October of 2007, a Cleveland student, after being suspended, wounded two students and two teachers before killing himself.

Mass school killings are not a new phenomenon. On the morning of May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe a member of the school board in Bath, Michigan murdered his wife, then set fire to his farm buildings. As firefighters arrived at his farm, he set off two explosions that devastated a portion of a school district building, killing 38 school students and seven adults including himself.

After a rash of school shootings in the late 1990s that culminated with the Columbine massacre the U.S Secret Service -- National Threat Assessment Center conducted a detailed 14-month analysis of 37 school shootings. The assessment, by and large, found that schools are the safest place that students spend time during the course of a day.

With that said, the assessment made some significant findings in terms of preventing future mass attacks. Incidents are rarely impulsive. The attacks are often the result of meticulous planning. In 75 percent of cases, the attacker shared those plans with others.

In addition, most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the attack, that caused others concern or indicated a need for help. It would be prudent for school administrators to dust off the assessment in the wake of the tragedy at Chardon. There is also a history of school-based copy-cat attacks.

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